As a child growing up in Africa, I must have heard my father tell the story a hundred times. The story began on a rainy night, in a far away place called America. It's about 11:30 p.m., an older African American woman was stranded on the side of an Alabama highway in a gusting rainstorm. You see, her car had broken down and she desperately needed a ride home. Soaking wet, she tried to flag down the cars as they passed by but nobody stopped to help. After what must have seemed like eternity, a young white man stopped to help. My dad would then pause to remind us that this act of kindness by this young man was rare in those conflict-filled, racially tense 1960s. But this man was gracious and took her to safety, and even waited to get her a taxicab so she could make it home. Although she was in a hurry to get home, she asked the Good Samaritan for his address just before he drove away.
A week later, the young man received an unexpected surprise in the mail. It was a giant console, black and white TV with a special note attached. My dad, being the dramatist, would take out a piece of paper from his pocket and read the note to my sisters and I.
The note read:
"Thank you so much for helping me on the highway the other night. The rain drenched not only my clothes but also my spirits. But, because of you, I was able to make it to my dying husbandís bedside just before he passed away. God bless you for helping me and serving others unselfishly. Sincerely, Mrs. Nat king Cole."
The wife of one of the greatest musical icons of the 20th century.
As a young lad, my first and only impression of America was based on this story. I pictured in my mind's eye America as a nation of helpers, a place of courage full of encouragers, a country where there was respect for people, where everyone leaned on each other and somehow found a way to get along with one another.
My American journey began on a rainy Thursday night on august 24, 1979. As the Pan Am Boeing 747 approached the John F. Kennedy airport, pictures tumbled through my mind - New York City, the big apple, the United States of America. I saw skyscrapers pushed up like mushrooms stretching their heads toward the sky. All I could hear playing in my head was my half memorized lyrics of Frank Sinatra's New York, New York.
Start spreading the news
I'm leaving today
I want to be a part of it.......... New York, New York
I want to wake up in the city that doesn't sleep
I'm gonna make a brand new start of it.... In old New York
If I can make it there,
I'll make it anywhere
It's up to you, New York, New York
On August 23, 1979, the day before, I was a member of the majority in Nigeria; and on August 24th, I became a minority. I was excited. I was afraid. I was confused, but I was in America. I recall my thoughts of America as a child growing up in Nigeria.
I remembered watching American television shows in Nigeria: the Love Boat, the Jefferson's, Sesame Street. I could smell the good ole' American hamburgers with everything on it, french-fries and that ever addictive, American drink - chocolate milkshake!
After landing in New York City, my first question to a stunned U.S. immigration officer was whether the Coyote had finally caught the Roadrunner. I referenced the long running cartoon that featured the never-ending chase between the Coyote and the prey, the Roadrunner. I was disappointed to learn that the Coyote, with all its savvy equipment from the Acme Factory had not succeeded in catching the very elusive Roadrunner. I had spent a good part of my youth watching this never-ending chase between the hunter and the prey. It's a story that characterizes what America is known for, the unending quest to have whatever we want, when we want it. It's been 30 years since my American journey began. I must confess to you that there are still many unanswered questions. For instance, I would like to know why the fat lady has to sing before it's over? And will somebody please explain to me why it isn't over 'til it's over? And why does everybody in St. Louis want to know what high school I attended? I keep telling them that I didn't grow up here, that I got here as soon as I could. But that's not enough. They just want to know what high school.
America is a place where opportunities abound and it is here that innovation and creativity flourish. It's in the soul, the environment. It is a place where people are told that they can defy conventional wisdom...a real life fairytale where dreams really do come true.
A remarkable place that defies imagination, where truly all things are indeed possible. My understanding of America has come in different formats and stories. I recall one of the greatest tales ever told which is a story of risk, failure and perseverance....and all revolves around an anthropomorphic egg who was bent on defying the odds and met with interesting results. Maybe you know it. It is the story of Humpty Dumpty. I'm sure you recall the rhyme. Please join me in reciting it.
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king's horses and all the king's men,
Couldn't put Humpty Dumpty together again.
The key word here is the very last word of the rhyme-"again." This confirms that this was not the first time that Humpty had fallen. Humpty was a serial risk taker.
Humpty was bold, fearless, unrelenting and entrepreneurial. Humpty was all about setting stretch goals and was very familiar with the reality called failure. But, this egg refused to allow failure to define him. Failure for Humpty was real time feedback. Failure was an opportunity to regroup, to reassess and to try again until success was eventually achieved.
The wall is a simple metaphor for the singular act of overcoming challenges. Climbing a wall is moving beyond where we are. Climbing a wall is overcoming adversity. It is challenging tradition, pursuing goals that are not easily achievable and refusing to give up in that pursuit. Indeed, we all spend the rest of our lives climbing walls.
There are so many people in America, who now find themselves faced with the greatest challenge of their life. They have lost their jobs, their homes, their life savings and they are losing confidence. They are down because they have fallen. And as we all contemplate the severity and hopelessness of the present and seek to overcome the uncertainty of the future, I found solace in the story of Humpty, one egg's journey of endurance that speaks to the willingness to keep trying. It is a story about the courage to seek challenges, to gratefully accept help when needed and to persevere when there is no apparent reason to do so. It's a vivid reminder that even when we do everything right - when we remain loyal to our employer, invest our money in "fool-proof" funds, pursue the American dream--that we may still fall short. Somewhere in our life's journey, we will face adversity. Some we will overcome and some will overcome us.
Humpty's story is a story of the power of courage. Eddie Rickenbacker said it better that courage is doing what we are afraid to do. There can be no courage unless we are scared. There is a little Humpty Dumpty in all of us. We all have fallen, yes. We have been broken, certainly. America has showed me somewhere deep inside our heads - behind the doom, beyond the gloom - we refuse to take our eye off that wall and are ready to climb it, cracks and all, as impossible as it may seem.
I have met many real life Humpty Dumptys, ordinary people who are battling against unimaginable odds; young men and women fighting incurable medical conditions, friends and loved ones facing physical and mental adversity; and untold millions facing unbelievable economic challenges; yet they are unwilling to give in, they persevered, refuse to relent, remain determined to succeed despite all odds.
I am particularly impressed with Humpty's support group, you know, his family and friends, all the king's horses and all the king's men, who provided the ultimate safety net for Humpty. If it wasn't for our "king's men" and "king's horses," (family and friends) getting back up would have been impossible. They are the ones who encourage us to keep on keeping on. They are there help put us back together again. In my American journey, I have met so many kings men and kings horses.
They say that America is a place called yes, where everything is possible. But circumstances often force us to move toward that comfortable place called no. Because no is a much easier place for us to be. But yet, yes is the place where the sun always shines. Yes is a place of inspiration and aspiration, a place of possibilities. Yet I have found so many people who prefer to live in that place called no: - no time, no fun, no hope, no plans. Nothing.
And so, I traveled all over this country in search of the American experience, seeking an understanding of what makes this nation great.
My journey has taken me to forty-four states in my singular quest to gain an appreciation of this place called God's own country. The visitor in me saw the awesome and overwhelming beauty and power of America. And the student in me saw a nation of contradictions. They say this is God's own country yet prayer in public schools and in most public events is discouraged. This is a nation still grappling with the power of and a reluctant appreciation for the greatest heritage it possesses - diversity.
It's been a fulfilling journey, a meaningful experience that has made me a better person, more understanding and appreciative of people and their differences. But my thirty-year odyssey also exposed me to so many other things I didn't expect to find in America.
In America, you get the sense that everybody is in a hurry. It's as if they are running out of time. The centrality of movement made me wonder whether such hustle and bustle ultimately impacts the psychological stability of the people. I wonder if this constant motion affects the people's sense of permanence and their sense of place. You find this "hurry up and go" attitude almost everywhere you go in America.
Legendary Indy car driver, Mario Andretti confirms my concern when he said, "most Americans believe that if everything is under control, then they're not going fast enough." People are more focused on moving on to the next task and how fast they can reach the next intersection. Too many people are running through life without taking time to live life or to slow down long enough to keep in touch with the people who matter the most...family and friends.
This past September, I connected with a St. Louis native named Jack Dorsey. @jack is the founder of Twitter. He was born on Grand Avenue, raised in Compton Heights and created a concept of immediacy and transparency that is enabling people to rise above their circumstance, a new voice for 55 million people the world over. Jack told me that immediacy is one of the biggest gifts you can give someone. It also happens to be the one thing Twitter gives its users every second of the day.
Immediacy allows people to create and consume, to participate and observe. In Twitter, there are no barriers or walls, only ownership. Twittering is a very freeing abstract notion that makes it easy to express what you want to say in 140 characters or less. Every idea is transparent. When people update their family, their friends and the world, they are inspiring approachability.
But this begs the question, how can we sum up the courage and audacity to use this kind of creativity and utter brilliance to solve those elusive challenges? How can we be strong enough to improve the healthcare system, to update America's financial structure or to provide clean water? How can we use this to reduce the number of Americans who spend their days in food lines and their nights in chilly parks? I hope the result is immediate, transparent and makes us all accountable for our fellow citizens.
America is a nation of immigrants, where many people are trying to preserve their original past, to prevent becoming just another anonymous ingredient in this great melting pot. If you are searching for evidence of this proud heritage, you will find it in the various classifications that Americans use to describe themselves. African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Italian American, Latino, Asian American, Native American, Alaskan Native American, Polish American, Jewish American, Russian American, Texans, and Good Ol' Boys. Strip away these superficial designations and you discover that people are very much like you and me. My hope is that sooner, rather than later, we will come to realize the vanity of our false distinctions based solely on our skin color and our heritage.
In America, I found racial and ethnic harmony in the most unexpected place, Sesame Street. Sesame Street is a world of respectful puppets and kind friends where everyone owns a piece of the street.
Kermit the Frog taught us the value of friendship and reminds us all that we were all born original yet we spend the rest of our lives trying to be copies.
Big Bird, my favorite character on Sesame Street, showed us that we are all birds of different feathers and that life is not about how different we are but the difference we can make. Big Bird challenges us all to continue to strive towards building relationships with others and not to confuse our net worth with our self worth.
The Count introduces us to the intricate value of money but warns us of the tendency of putting too much value on material things.
I am impressed with Oscar who consistently demonstrates the value of respect and tolerance for different ideas and different people.
And of course, how can I forget the connoisseur of continental cookies, the Cookie Monster, who shows us the negative consequences of addictive behavior and that too much of anything is not good for us.
Sesame Street provides the ultimate forum for all of us to come together by showing what is possible on this imaginary street.
Former Oklahoma congressman and my friend, J.C. Watts, captured the challenges that lay ahead for our nation when he said, "America needs to be a place where all of us can feel a part of the American dream." But this will not happen by dividing us into racial groups.
I agree with J.C. that the future of America will be good if all of us are willing to come to a realization of what is possible when we work together. Sesame Street stands as the ultimate example of a non-violent society.
But in many cities all over America they live in fear, stuck in the middle of a crossfire, a living nightmare where hate is growing faster than love and the victims are people like you and me, innocent bystanders caught in this societal drive-by shooting. I am afraid that if America does not find a way to come together, then nothing will stop us from growing apart. We may legislate against possession of firearms and explosive devices. Yes, this may help. But it is us, not the guns and bullets, that lie at the core of those abject acts of utter violence. It begs the question...what shall we do about us?
I see America more like a great big bowl of tossed salad, where the diversity of people, and ideas, make for a culturally, ethnically rich salad full of possibilities and promises. What we need more in this big tossed bowl of humanity is the best kind of homemade dressing available tolerance, love and compassion for one another.
One of the most unforgettable experiences in my American journey was my visit to the nation's capitol. Washington, D.C. Upon arrival at the majestic Reagan Airport I took a taxi cab to my hotel near Capital Hill. On the way to the hotel, as we passed the National Archives building, I noticed the bold inscription on the building, "the past is prologue."
I inquired from the cab driver, "What does this mean?" The cab driver replied, it means, "You ain't seen nothing yet." This is the essence of America, the quest to continue to break its own record over and over again.
I find this inscription to be a valued reminder that what America accomplished in the past is nothing compared to what it can do in the future.
In Washington D.C., I saw statues of many American heroes. They are strategically placed in congressional hallways and public parks. Such notables as: Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, his wife Eleanor and even their dog! The statues look so real, so lifelike that I was tempted to ask them for directions. But they are silent, for they speak only with magnificent gazes. But quietly they remind us all of our illustrious past, while urging on to continue to seek a greater future. It's a reminder of the relevance of reinforced autonomy and freedom to improvise. They were great leaders yet their enduring legacies lay in their embrace of the art of followership.
I visited the Vietnam Memorial, the long, shining black granite wall on which the names of America's war heroes are carved. This national tombstone is a vivid reminder of the cost of war and its monumental cost to humanity. For each of the 58,000 tiny names inscribed on this solemn wall there is a larger tragedy somewhere in America - a son, a daughter, a father, a mother that never came home. I was moved by the enormous loss of promising young lives, gone - gone forever.
My quest to know more about the technological and engineering accomplishments of America took me to Orlando, Florida, where I witnessed mind-boggling scientific and technological achievements at Disneyworld and got a rare opportunity to meet the greatest, biggest, the most celebrated rodent in the world. This warm, fuzzy, sensitive, always smiling rodent, called Mickey Mouse, was indeed larger than life!
I was impressed with the vision and creativity of Walt Disney, who took a pest, a nuisance to so many people around the world and turned it into a lovable, respectable, kid loving, billion-dollar icon. Disney's mission is one of the most compelling I have ever heard. It's simple, it's dynamic and it is everlasting - to make people happy. It is a mission statement that does not have a completion date.
Last July, America celebrated the 40th anniversary of the moon landing and moonwalk. Neil Armstrong took one step for himself and a giant step for the rest of us. Walking on the moon was the ultimate stretch goal.
As America celebrated this famous walk I must ask the question - what will be America's next moon goal? What will America do to combat hunger, to find a cure for cancer and AIDS?
In my American journey, I had a brush with greatness. In 1989 I challenged my economics class at the University of Oklahoma to go on a search and find a mission for a successful local entrepreneur who built a business from scratch and had succeeded in creating something meaningful, something good. My students took the challenge and went beyond the call of duty. The students made a phone call to Bentonville, Arkansas and succeeded in securing a Saturday morning breakfast with Sam Walton, the 74-year-old billionaire, founder of Wal-Mart. I was astounded by the sheer tenacity of six young men and women who were bold enough to dream with their eyes wide open and strong-willed enough to make those dreams come true.
And so we headed to Bentonville, Arkansas in the wee hours of Saturday morning. On arrival at the corporate headquarters in Bentonville, you wonder how something great could come out of a place so simple. Mr. Walton was waiting for us at the gate of the corporate headquarters. When we approached the gate, what we saw a slender, gray haired gentleman wearing a worn out baseball cap, faded wrangler blue jeans, no name tennis shoes and casual short sleeve cowboy shirt.
The old man introduced himself as Sam as we passed him, but we kept walking. The person we saw did not meet our expectations as America's wealthiest man even though we heard him say that his name was Sam. We refused to believe what we saw. We were in the midst of greatness and we didn't even know it. Over breakfast Sam Walton shared with us his personal philosophy of putting people before profit and the possibilities that come when we dare to set our goals further than the human eye can see. Sam Walton is an American original who embodied the entrepreneurial spirit that epitomizes the American dream. Sam Walton reminded us that morning that life is not a dress rehearsal.
One of the greatest literary giants of all time, William Shakespeare was in-your-face correct when he wrote in the play "As You Like It" that, "all the world is a stage and all men and women are merely players. They take their entrances and then eventually make their exit," but the response that I hear from today's generation worries me.
"Hey Willy Shakes, you know what? Life is just a dress rehearsal, we don't have to be responsible for our actions. It's not important to try to make a difference, the future will take care of itself and all we have to do is go along for the ride."
There are too many people who are satisfied going through life like a fish goes through water, leaving no visible trails behind. I am concerned about the future of America, because the people we are counting on to lead us into the future are content just living in the present.
I stand before you today a living testimony of the goodness of America. This country has given me the opportunity to receive the best education and to acquire marketable skills. It would be God junior of me to tell you how to live your life but let me suggest that as you leave this place today and as the curtains go up and your lives become visible once more in the floodlights of our world remember that the future of America depends on whether you allow yourself to hear another voice besides your own. I'm talking about that calming voice that will whisper hope in your very darkest hour. That quiet voice that gives you wisdom when your intellectual capacity is insufficient to hold its own; a wonderful voice that will call you to dance when you can't even hear the music.
I leave you tonight with a poem by Patrick O'Leary that captures the very essence of my American journey. The poem is titled: "Nobody knows."
"There's a place I travel when I want to roam,
And nobody knows it but me.
The roads don't go there and the signs stay home,
And nobody knows it but me.
It's far, far away and way, way afar, it's over the moon and the sea, wherever you're going that's wherever you are.
And nobody knows it but me."
And so my friends...I ask that you please don't allow the rain of discontent to wash our hopes and dreams away. Don't allow the unexpected showers of life to rain on your spirit of enthusiasm, and our compassion for one another. Remember, we can do more together than we can ever do apart. God bless America.
""We were all born originals, but most of us spend the rest of our lives trying to be copies. It's your originality that will set you apart." "
- Dr. Benjamin Akande
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